William Comcowich
William Comcowich

As Hurricane Florence begins to pound the Carolinas, corporate communicators around the country will likely be urgently reviewing their disaster response plans. Some will feel more confident of weathering storms than others, and some may wish they had created detailed crisis communications plans earlier.

With many days still left in this year’s hurricane season, more severe storms striking the US are a distinct possibility. Other types of catastrophic weather events will become more common, climate experts predict. You only need to note the massive forest fires in California.

That signals that PR teams need to incorporate weather into their crisis plans. The need to plan for weather and other crises isn’t limited to major corporations. Smaller companies including retail businesses and PR agencies must also plan and prepare for weather disruptions.

As with other types of crises, preparation for severe weather requires creating a PR crisis plan that covers protocols for communicating with the media, public and internal audiences. A natural disaster plan also includes contingency plans for loss of power, temporary closure of your business, working remotely and interrupted Internet service.

When contingency plans are essential

Adequate plans include back-up communication methods, including lists of cell phone and home phone numbers and alternate email addresses of key players. Plans may also include arrangements for sending key team members to other offices or locations outside the potential disaster zone.

Because many people have trouble getting to work during storms and other types of severe weather, it’s not just corporate PR departments that need crisis plans. PR service providers who monitor media, distribute news releases and complete other communications services also need contingency plans, experts say.

The need for a plan may seem obvious, but research indicates that many businesses lack written plans for managing weather-related crises, said Lisa Goldsberry at Axia Public Relations. A year after Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York City in 2012, most businesses still didn’t have any kind of plan.

“If you don’t plan ahead, it’s harder to bounce back,” Goldsberry said. “Communicating quickly is important, but you must first know what and how to communicate.”

Prioritize your team

PR teams often work around the clock to secure accurate storm information, facilitate interviews, monitor traditional and social media and update media and social channels. Staff members may become overworked during a natural disaster and may be preoccupied with their own homes and families.

Prioritize the health, safety and well-being of your team before anything else, recommended Carey Kirkpatrick, CEO and founder of communications firm CKP, in Forbes. Make sure your team members manage their own personal and safety needs during and after a disaster. Feel free to decline a media opportunity, especially if it would negatively affect your client or a team member’s personal safety or well-being, suggested Kirkpatrick, whose Houston-based PR firm worked through Hurricane Harvey.

“During Harvey, my team declined national media opportunities for both these reasons. And you know what? The opportunities waited for our clients,” she said.

Media measurement and benchmarking can indicate when it’s acceptable to pass on a media opportunity, pointed out Katie Paine, CEO of Paine Publishing. Most large organizations have a crisis communications plan, complete with a dark website ready to go live at any time and even a crisis newsroom on standby. “Smaller organizations typically lack such resources. But if they have a monitoring and measurement system in place, many valuable resources will already be at their fingertips,” Paine said. Outsourced services will usually be outside the disaster area and have backup servers in the cloud, minimizing any downtime.

While PR teams can share helpful information, it’s critical to avoid spreading fake news reports. Social media hoaxes — like the Photoshopped image of a shark swimming in flooded Houston streets after Hurricane Harvey — tend to proliferate and spread quickly during disasters. Verify before retweeting. Be suspicious of news that seems outrageous or seems too good or too bad to be true. Learn the basic tricks on how to spot false news and doctored photos to verify information before retweeting.

How will your firm contribute to relief efforts?

As the Carolinas begin to recover from floods and severe wind damage, we’re likely to see an outpouring of both individual and corporate donations. Besides donating funds directly to relief organizations and charities, companies will surely donate their products, waive fees, and provide shelter to storm refugees.

Following Hurricane Harvey last year, corporations that sent free products to storm-damaged areas included Duracell (batteries), Chobani (yogurt) and Walmart (bottled water).

Other corporations helped storm victims in more creative ways. Southwest Airlines and United Continental offered incentives to encourage customers to donate frequent flier points to relief workers. The Anheuser-Busch brewery in Cartersville, GA., “traded in hops for helping hands” and halted beer production to produce cans of water.

Furniture store owner Jim McIngvale opened his two stores to storm evacuees in the Houston area. People sat on his chairs, rested on sofas and slept on mattresses. McIngvale, known as “mattress mack,” also provided them three meals a day, earning enormous publicity and good will for his generosity and compassion.

Pause promotions

Unfortunately, some marketers may attempt a crass promotion or clumsy effort at storm-related humor. During the height of Hurricane Harvey, Chick-fil-A, which has a large presence in the Houston area, promoted its hash brown scrambles. Burger King tweeted that “The secret to happiness is Chicken Fries.” Target, one of the most popular shopping chains in Texas, tweeted: “We’re pawsitively pumped for #NationalDogDay! Spoil your fur baby with our latest & greatest pet products.”

Better advice is to pause social media promotions during natural disasters. Social media posts not ordinarily deemed offensive may seem insensitive during a time of personal and community crisis. Beware of scheduling social media posts in advance with automated tools, a common social media tactic.

The most appropriate action is to express sympathy and, ideally, offer aid to the victims. Promising to donate a portion of sales to relief efforts can enhance the brand’s image and boost sales. PR and marketing pros need to proceed cautiously or else well-intentioned offers may come across as self-promotional.

PR pros can encourage their companies to help their community with donations of products, services or cash during or after the disaster. “Everyone has something to give, loan or share if they wish to do so,” said Kirkpatrick.

Bottom Line: Hurricane Florence emphasizes the need for companies to prepare or update their crisis communications plans. As hurricanes and other natural disasters strike with increasing frequency, businesses will need to make sure they include natural disaster in their crisis management plans. Wise corporate communicators will help their own organizations survive the disaster and then help guide their companies through community relief efforts.

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William J. Comcowich founded CyberAlert LLC and currently serves as Interim CEO of Glean.info, a media monitoring, measurement and analytics service that includes the first Fake News Monitoring solution.